A Whole New Thing (***)
Dance to the Music (**)
There’s a Riot Goin’ On (*****)
Small Talk (***1/2)
The rise and fall of Sylvester “Sly” Stewart is nearly as infamous as the recordings he made with his groundbreaking funk/rock/soul outfit the Family Stone. After cutting his teeth in local school bands as a teenager, Sly landed a job in 1963 as a disc jockey at San Francisco R&B radio station KSOL, where his disparate playlists first began to reveal his unique personality. Throughout his tenure in the mid-60’s, Sly had no problem puzzling his audience by following up a James Brown track with a Bob Dylan protest song and in the process unwittingly helped diversify the FM radio boom that was set to occur in the proceeding years. In addition to this, Sly began to produce records by local San Francisco bands such as The Mojo Men and the Beau Brummels. So when he finally decided to start his own group, he was already pretty well versed in the process of writing and recording. However, Sly had no interest in forming a stereotypical soul or funk band; he wanted to challenge people’s perspectives by integrating into his music a modern psychedelic sound. In terms of personnel, the group he recruited was as diverse as their sound—a multi-racial, multi-gendered septet including Sly’s siblings Rose and Freddie Stone, Cynthia Stone, Jerry Martini, Larry Graham and Greg Errico. This mix of race and gender was unheard of in 1967, setting Sly and the Family Stone apart from any band that had come before. The flamboyant hippie visual aesthetic they adopted was just another tip of the hat to the direction Sly wanted to take his band. It’s no wonder Sly named their first record A Whole New Thing. And now, on the 40th anniversary of its release, Epic/Legacy is finally reissuing all seven albums by the original Family Stone.
Released in 1967, A Whole New Thing announced the arrival of a new voice in contemporary music. Its triumphant opening track “Underdog” wonderfully describes the Family Stone’s situation at the time, as they attempted to break through prejudice and bring society together through song. Small traces of Sly’s genius are evident in many of its songs, most notably in the trippy psych-pop of “Trip to Your Heart” and the subversive rave-up “Dog.” It was certainly out of step with the sound of the time, which is probably why it bombed. It is far from a consistent listen, with a couple of forgettable ballads and some James Brown funk approximations (“Turn Me Loose”) that can’t quite step out of the shadows of their influence. It wasn’t even released on CD for the first time until the 90’s, so this particular reissue is welcomed.
Perhaps sensing they were ahead of their time, the band’s label suggested that Sly “dumb down” his approach to songwriting. This compromise resulted in “Dance to the Music”, one of the era’s most famous songs. Embracing the universal theme of dance, the band hit upon a formula that would help catapult them into the stratosphere of popular culture. The resulting album Dance to the Music unfortunately seems to exist only as a vehicle for the title track, with nearly every song a variation on its theme. The epic monstrosity “Dance to the Medley” is the most overt offender, helping fill out the first side of the album while accomplishing less in 12 minutes than “Dance to the Music” does in 3. This was the dreaded sophomore slump and remains the nadir in the Family Stone’s otherwise impeccable catalogue.
They rebounded nicely with their second release of 1968, Life. However, in another string of bad luck, there was just no song quite as anthemic and accessible as “Dance to the Music,” causing the album to be overlooked and largely forgotten, even today. It is a more than worthy listen however, especially in order to experience the full evolution of Sly. By this point, it was fairly certain that, if nothing else, Sly would open the album with its best song, and Life is no different. Flexing a previously unseen muscle, “Dynamite!” is perhaps the Family Stone’s most overt flirtation with rock. Buoyed by a stinging guitar riff, the song crackles with suspense, making it perhaps the highpoint of the Family Stone’s early period. Sly’s dark sense of humor is apparent throughout the record, just look at the song titles: “Chicken,” “I’m an Anima,” “Jane is a Groupee” and “Plastic Jim.” This would be the last appearance of Sly’s optimistic outlook on life. Things were about to get serious.
Up until this point, Sly was a fairly happy guy, buying in (as many did) with the hippie lifestyle and Summer of Love ideals of peace, love and understanding. The nation’s problems were growing darker by this time however, and it was time for a statement. Released in 1969, Stand! was the call-to-arms that many had been expecting from this forward thinking band for years. As good as some of the moments on their first three records were, it wasn’t until Stand! that Sly put together his first truly essential album. It is at turns inspirational (the title track and “You Can Make It If You Try”), hateful (“Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey”) and paranoid (“Somebody’s Watching You”), perfectly encapsulating the discontent of a nation while calling on the common folk to make a change. “Everyday People” was the hit though, a slice of soul heaven sent down to inspire and unite. Nearly every song is a classic, making it perhaps the best starting point for the uninitiated. The album shows how far Sly had come in only 2 years, but retains the vibrancy of his early music, which would only return periodically over the next 5 years. At the end of the 14 minute dub-funk instrumental “Sex Machine,” you can hear a voice in the background say, “We blew your mind out.” Nothing could describe the feeling of Stand! any better than that.
In the period following the release of Stand!, Sly receded from the spotlight. Lost in a snowstorm of cocaine, his behavior became erratic. Live appearances were frequently delayed or missed altogether; his communication with the band members was non-existent. At the exact moment when Sly could have conquered the world, he fell into the abyss. Feeling pressure from the record company, Sly released the epochal “Hot Fun in the Summertime” single in late 1969 to overwhelming popularity. He still couldn’t get it together though. As they waited endlessly for Sly to reemerge, Epic would release the Family Stone’s first Greatest Hits collection in 1970. Sly’s disaffection was not at all unfounded; by 1970 Martin Luther King had been assassinated, The Rolling Stones’ infamous Altamont massacre had taken the last breath from hippie idealism, the Black Panthers were breathing down his neck for a more radical political statement and Nixon was sending more troops to Vietnam by the day. Instead of fighting back, Sly retreated to his rented Bel Air mansion, where he would almost single handedly record his grandest statement to date.
In response to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, Sly titled his next album There’s a Riot a Goin’ on, a record that stands as one of the most uncompromising and flat-out best releases of the 1970s. The recording of the album is nearly as legendary as what was actually released. Sly holed himself up in his mansion with a bevy of instruments and a single drum machine, which would provide the creeping backbone for this mangled masterpiece. Nothing Sly had done before or would do after sounded anything like Riot. He endlessly overdubbed and erased his songs, which in turn deteriorated the tapes to the point where every sound on the record is covered in an odd, mystical haze. The famous album cover (finally restored to its original design for the first time) just added to the mysterious sounds Sly was pioneering. He had already experimented with drum machines on other artists’ records, but Riot marked the first time that synthetic percussion would dominate almost the entirety of a single record. The grooves on Riot are second to none. “Luv n’ Haight” is a brooding, disorienting opener (with the legendary lyric “Feel so good inside myself, don’t wanna move”); “Family Affair” is a sparse mechanical machine while “Space Cowboy” slides along like a burnt out comet. Riot’s terrain is a hazardous and engulfing one, a walk on the wild side that the few who were involved with it have ever spoken about it. It very nearly ended Sly’s career.
The depths Sly plumbed for Riot were deep. There was nowhere for Sly to go but up, and up he went with his full-on funk workout Fresh, released in 1973. Still retaining the seriousness of his last two records but lightening the subject matter, the album would mark Sly’s last great statement as an artist. Fresh is the sound of Sly stretching out, re-embracing those early melodies but marrying them to his odd production flourishes. “In Time” and “Thankful and Thoughtful” proved Sly could still get by on coolness alone while “Frisky,” “Keep on Dancin” and “Babies Makin Babies” reinserted some of that old sense of humor that had defined his early years. However, the cover of “Que Sera, Sera” and its themes of resignation give the biggest glimpse into Sly’s headspace at the time; he was done fighting, it was time slow things down.
The final official Sly and the Family Stone album Small Talk is frequently overlooked but is home to quite a number of classics. Mirroring the album cover, Sly was settling into domesticity with his wife and child, and the record has an easy, carefree charm that sent the Family Stone out on a peaceful note. The defining characteristic of the album is the abundance of studio chatter that is left on the recording, with the title track in particular even featuring Sly’s crying baby in the background. “Can’t Strain My Brain,” “Time for Livin” and “Better Thee Than Me” are all late career highlights for Sly, but “Loose Booty” trumps them all with its hip-hop rhythm and endlessly catchy chorus. Of course at this point I can’t hear the song without thinking of the Beastie Boys, who liberally sampled the track all over Paul’s Boutique standout “Shadrach.” Although the fact that three white teenage boys from New York would become so inspired by the song is testament not only to his influence but to how Sly mapped the course for modern funk and hip-hop.
After Small Talk, Sly ducked out of the spotlight and has rarely emerged since. He released a few embarrassing records under the Family Stone moniker in the late 70’s and early 80’s, none of which retain any of the spirit or vivacity of the original lineup. He has been in and out of rehab and has never been able to fully get his life back together (there is hope however; Sly has scheduled a very rare live performance with the Family Stone for the summer time). These seven albums had been near the top of the “must-be-remastered” list, but thankfully they have now all been re-released with authentic cover art and full track lists (that means Riot’s title track is finally present, all 0:00 of it). The bonus tracks that round out each disc are nothing too special, although the instrumental versions of many of the songs give a nice glimpse into Sly’s writing process. The albums are available individually in limited edition gate-fold packaging or together in a massive box set titled “Sly and the Family Stone: The Collection”. Though not every album is an essential purchase, each is an important release in the (hopefully) continuing saga of Sylvester Stewart.